Portugal forest fires - Summer 2005

The disaster

In 2005 fires ravaged a number of European forests. Many acres of Europe’s most southern woodlands were destroyed, especially in Portugal. France, Greece, Italy and Spain were also affected by forest fires, however to a somewhat lesser extent. Most of southern Europe had experienced record temperatures in early August due to a heat-wave from Africa. Moreover Portugal, Spain and France suffered a severe drought. For Portugal, this was the worst drought on record.

Twenty-one fires started in early August. By 15 September 2005 236,834 hectares of forests were eaten up by flames. This roughly corresponds to the size of Luxembourg. In financial terms, the economic damage was estimated at €744 million.  13 Portuguese lost their lives, including 10 fire-fighters.

Request for assistance

In view of the extent of the disaster, Portugal was the only of those countries affected by forest fires that triggered the Community Civil Protection Mechanism that year. On 20 August 2005, the Portuguese authorities requested assistance through the Community Civil Protection Mechanism. In his comments to the media the Portuguese Prime Minister Josι Socrates, commented that Portugal asked the European Union for reinforcements as the resources at Portugal's disposal were no longer enough to fight all of the fires.

The MIC immediately forwarded the call for assistance to participating states. The situation was brought under control on 29 August, while the emergency was officially closed on 7 September 20005.

Assistance provided

Within a few hours, several participating states – France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Spain and Norway – were already able to offer assistance in addition to the work of Portuguese forces. France, Italy supplied a total of 3 water-bombing aircraft supporting a Spanish aircraft that was offered bilaterally. Germany and the Netherlands provided a total of 9 specialised helicopters. The assistance from Slovakia and Norway was considered no longer necessary by Portugal because the situation had by then been bought under control. A number of satellite images were also obtained by the MIC from the International Charter (Space and Major Disasters) for better monitoring of the emergency.

Added value

The 2005 Portuguese forest fires were a clear example of European solidarity at its best. Portugal had reached a critical stage of the emergency. The damage it was sustaining in human, environmental and economic cost was reaching terrible proportions. Through a swift operation, facilitated by the MIC, Portugal's forest fires where smothered in a few days, bringing this disaster to an end. 

Lessons learnt

When the fires were considerably mitigated, Portugal asked on the Mechanism partners to assist it with a one-month stand-by force to put out fires promptly. As most of the participating states were however dealing with fires back in their own country, the response was not as overwhelming as for the initial request for assistance. The assistance eventually offered by Italy and Greece did not cover the time-period requested either. To this effect, the proposals put forward in a Commission Communication, eventually leading to a proposal for the recast of the Mechanism legislation, could have helped the country in need.

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